We are undeniably complex beings. Our impulses can kidnap us. Our thoughts can
mislead us. Our behaviors can mystify us. Our emotions know no reason. Part of
human complexity is our innate ability to create the unimaginably good as well
as to mislead, distract, or outsmart ourselves and undermine our own happiness.
We all do things on occasion that aren’t in our best interests.
moments are often harmless, even humorous. Yet many actions and
oversights don’t make sense. Have you ever wondered why you did something that
wasn’t good for you? Why you stopped yourself short
of having what you wanted? Why, even when you knew the best course to take and
were capable of pursuing it, you didn’t take it?
We each possess uncharted
inner provinces, home to anxieties and desires which steer our behavior like
unseen hands. Has it ever seemed to you as though an essential part of you
looked the other way while some rogue aspect took over? Whatever takes over can
use what it knows about you to sweet-talk, distract, or overpower you in
counterproductive ways. Curiously, at times it may seem as though part of you
wants this undermining aspect to succeed.
When you take stock of such
challenges as unfulfilling relationships, emotional turmoil, unhealthy habits,
or career petrifaction, an integral factor may be that you are keeping secrets
from yourself. The definition of secret is “hidden from knowledge or view” or
“using hidden aims or methods.” You have probably experienced the frustration
when a mate, friend, colleague, or customer deceives you or withholds part of
the truth. It can hobble you and weaken the relationship. Yet we do the same to
Take a moment and think of a time when you got in your own way. My point isn’t
to assign blame or kindle guilt; most of us already feel too much inappropriate
guilt. The point, rather, is that if you examine the times you’ve unnecessarily
complicated your life, you may see patterns of behavior that are at odds with
who you know yourself to be and who you aspire to
become. A friend who recently entered therapy shared with painful candor the
insight that changed his life: “It’s not the other people and situations in my
life that have been making me miserable. It’s me that has been making me
Perhaps you can recall one or
more situations in which you consciously or unconsciously:
• Pursued short-term gain at the cost of long-term
• Cruised through important situations on autopilot
• Pressured yourself without let-up, paying a price
with your health
• Overlooked, minimized, or rationalized serious
problems you needed to face
• Ate, drank, or spent too much, then felt bad about
• Ignored your intuition or experience and got hurt
• Waited too long or quit too soon, forfeiting your
hopes and needs
• Denied yourself victory
or pleasure after working hard to attain them
• Stoked unrealistic expectations, ensuring an
• Gave yourself to those who did not cherish you,
then lost self-esteem
Such lapses can cost dearly: your deepest yearnings abandoned; dearly-held
relationships and opportunities lost; health, energy, and time misspent; peace
and contentment ransomed to a cycle of guilt and regret. The
cost of self-sabotage registers in your mind, body, and heart. Your
mental life may twirl in confusion or wither from harsh self-criticism. Your
body may ache from addictions, stress, or injuries. Your heart may beat to
anxiety, frustration, or depression.
With enough time and
repetition, lapses like these become enduring patterns that may go unnoticed for
years until punctured by a disquieting moment of truth. When you disclaim your
deepest yearnings or inner wisdom, you imprison an essential part of yourself.
This can happen quickly, ushered along by what seem compelling reasons at the
time, and keep you from the life you were meant to live. Perhaps you awake one
day and recognize that you have spent years focusing on success, approval, or
the rules, but have given scant attention to what matters most to you: intimate
connections, inner peace, family, or contributing to others, for example.
Perhaps in a candid moment you tally the damage from thousands of hours
listening to a self-critical monologue and failing to give yourself votes of
confidence when you most needed them. Or perhaps a friend’s innocent comment
shakes your denial and you realize that you have remained in a marriage which
long ago stopped providing you with nurturance and which has left you living
with a mountain of grief and loneliness. Even a single self-inflicted loss, if
it’s dire enough in nature, can significantly alter your life for the worse.
Some of life’s deepest pain
comes from living with a lie. When things don’t turn out as you hope, it is
easier to reconcile your disappointment when you know that you did all you could
have done on your behalf. But when things go awry, and you sense that you helped
derail your goals, you face the next challenge with a dirty slate instead of a
“An unexamined life is not
worth living,” Socrates said. Becoming more self-aware does not mean that you
will always get what you want. It does mean, however, that you are more likely
to face disappointments without the added angst of wondering whether you had a
hand in your own suffering.
To be sure, we cannot foresee
the future, and we all have occasional errors of judgment. Yet if you’ve ever
looked back at periods of letting your life drift, selling yourself short, or
looking the other way, you may have wondered, “What was I doing all that time?”
More important, it raises the more disquieting question: “How can I know for
sure whether I’m acting in my best interests even now?”
Now please understand me, I am not saying that you cause all of your problems.
There are plenty of injustices and tragedies in the world that you had nothing
to do with, yet which can bring you suffering. You are not responsible
for painful acts others inflict upon you. Nor am I referring to honest mistakes.
We all make mistakes. Mistakes are one way we learn and grow.
Rather, it is simply a risk of human nature that we sometimes unwittingly hold
back or go too far, often bringing upon ourselves the very pains we’d sought to
avoid. As Wittgenstein wrote, “Nothing is so
difficult as not deceiving oneself.”
Getting in your own way is
not uncommon. You probably see it in others pretty clearly and even know what
they could have done to prevent it. But it is more difficult to see your own
missteps, and it isn’t always clear how to remedy them.
We keep secrets from ourselves because we seek to avoid emotional losses.
Life can bring tremendous emotional loss. Tragedies befall us and treasures
elude us for reasons beyond our control. We experience fear, disappointment,
hurt, grief, and anger. We lose our loved ones, our good health, and,
ultimately, our lives. Along the way we may lose hope, inner peace, and balance.
Many of these are the necessary losses inherent in being alive, as Judith Viorst
wrote in Necessary Losses. But what about
unnecessary losses? How many of your losses in life are avoidable?
Which losses do you, at least in part, bring upon yourself? The irony is that
some of our attempts to avoid loss accelerate or magnify the very losses we had
hoped to avoid.
Rita Mae Brown defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over but
expecting a different result each time.” I can’t tell you how often I’ve said to
psychotherapy clients, You’re speaking as
though you feel that your life is something to be endured. Clients often
respond just as I did when I was first asked this by my therapist years ago:
You mean it’s not?
Though rationally you know that we’re not here just to endure, it can come to
feel true when your primary focus is on avoiding
emotional loss. You attend, consciously and unconsciously, to fears rather than
desires. You risk leading, as Thoreau wrote, a life of “quiet desperation.”
Many of us have accomplished what we thought would make us happy only to find
happiness insufficient or fleeting. Are you almost happy: visiting the
neighborhood of happiness, peace, and fulfillment but rarely moving in to stay?
The problem is not that we don’t set goals, work hard, or accomplish great
things. The problem is that we undermine ourselves by means of various forms of
Denial is a powerful force in personal psychology. Denial can make you feel
unable to stop yourself even when you know you should. Perhaps you can recall a
time when you found yourself at the I-know-I-shouldn’t-but-what-the-hell
brink and stepped over. Maybe you were frustrated in a heated discussion so you
opted to get personal. Maybe by the third spoonful of chocolate-fudge ice cream
you felt unable to halt your spiral to the bottom of the pint. Perhaps you
allowed flirting to go too far with a subordinate at work.
At other times denial plays
the opposite tune, and you can’t get started. Perhaps you’re puzzled by mounting
tension between you and a friend, but you keep skirting the subject. Or perhaps
someone is smoking in a no-smoking zone, talking during a movie, or making
thinly-disguised racist comments at a party. You may be livid but feel unable to
say anything, so you stuff your feelings.
Being captain of your soul
can require negotiating around extremes. For example, at one extreme you may
overidealize situations or people, constructing unrealistic assumptions and
expectations that will house only disappointment. At the other extreme you may
undervalue yourself or others, selling yourself short or critically judging
others. You may overreact to everyday situations, or feel defensive around the
people closest to you. Or you may box yourself in with excessive
procrastination, fantasizing, approval-seeking, or watching mental re-runs.
Our self-inflicted losses and
the denial that facilitates them are difficult topics to grapple with. How do
you focus on motivations, feelings, and actions which part of you doesn’t want
to see? It can be unsettling to recognize that you’ve acted for reasons other
than you thought, particularly when the consequences were painful. When another
person harms you, the object of your anger is external. But outsmart yourself,
trip yourself up, or do the same, old, same-old even though it hasn’t worked for
years, and who but you is responsible? Among my psychotherapy clients, the topic
about which they often have abundant grief and few easy explanations is
Yet as uncomfortable or difficult as it may be to recognize and overcome your
denial and counterproductive actions, doing so is within your reach. I’m here to
tell you that denial and self-sabotage are not signs of weakness or anything to
hide or feel guilty about. If you sometimes miss the boat, “step in it,” or trip
yourself up, you are not flawed, bad, or dysfunctional. You are human.
Self-defeating behavior is a habit reinforced by biology, culture, and your
individual upbringing and development. Like any habit, it can be unlearned.
Disciplines from psychology to biology to economics have established a
surprising truth: There is a predictable science to denial and self-sabotage.
Understand that science, and you can master both the art and science of decoding
the secrets you keep from yourself so that they can work for you rather
than against you. Learning to recognize and negotiate around potentially
counterproductive situations is part of life’s work. Rather than being failures,
your self-defeats are messages sent from within you.
When you take these messages to heart, you gain more conscious use of your life.
Keeping secrets from
yourself, just as keeping secrets from anyone you love, is akin to trying to
keep a beach ball submerged. It requires constant energy. When you explore your
secrets, you free tremendous energy. Unlike situations in which external
circumstances or other people get in your way, when it comes to your awareness
and will, you wield tremendous influence. The key to overcoming
counterproductive patterns lies not in ignoring them or feeling bad about them
but in understanding how and why they happen so that you can change them.
Unrecognized liabilities can reign in your life like an unseen virus. Once you
see counterproductive patterns, you can heal them.
This book is designed to help
1) Reduce your unnecessary losses and the
suffering that comes with them.
2) Increase your self-awareness
and authenticity and let go of the suffering that comes from not being
What I ask of you is an openness to look inward, reflect, and be honest with
yourself about what you observe. When you “know thyself” in the full sense of
Diogenes’ words, you open the path to “thine own self be true” in every sense of
Shakespeare’s phrase. We’ll explore what gets in the way of knowing and being
true to yourself. We’ll discover what obstructs your
life’s flow and how you can allow your life to flow optimally. Along the way,
we’ll explore six questions at the heart of being yourself:
Who are you at your best, and what makes
you lose touch with your best self?
Part One will explore the nature
and payoffs of self-sabotage, payoffs which can make acting in your worst
interests appear to be your best choice.
How can you more readily recognize and
overcome unhealthy habits and over-reactions?
Part Two will show you several
early warning signs of denial and self-sabotage so that you can seek healthier
What are the keys to overcoming fear?
Part Three will explore how your
personal “Department of Defense” can keep you living behind a facade or shutting
down emotionally. Understanding this process can enhance your emotional
How can you achieve greater balance and
Part Four will help you
recognize and harness the power of your deepest strengths, values, and desires,
including some which you may have overlooked or forgotten.
How can you best triumph over adversity?
Part Five will offer tools to
help when you feel stuck or overwhelmed. You’ll learn how to take control by
defining any problem, no matter how difficult or long-standing, so that it can
best be solved.
How can you live each day based on what
really matters to you?
The final part of the book will
offer seven principles to take forward into your daily life to foster serenity
Each of us has regrets, what-ifs, and if-onlys. Hindsight can be a useful source
of learning, especially if you don’t use it to beat yourself up, and hindsight
is always clearer than foresight. But what if you could
substantially sharpen your foresight and increase your awareness of potentially
self-defeating situations, particularly in areas that matter most to you?
What if you could harness willpower which you may not know that you have and act
in your best interests even when tempted otherwise? What if you could make peace
with lingering guilt or regret over past self-defeats?
You could change the course
of your life.
Let’s get started.